IN The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), Merrill Peterson of the University of Virginia patented a new kind of history--the history of a great reputation. Peterson traced the "image" of Jefferson as it evolved and showed that Jefferson had been a mirror in which each age saw itself reflected. He was the touchstone of democratic legitimacy in America.
Thirty-five years later, Peterson added an illuminating companion piece, Lincoln in American Memory. There is no dearth of material. There are an estimated sixteen thousand books about Lincoln, who may be the most written-about historical figure since Jesus Christ. From the outset, as Peterson showed, the problem of distinguishing the cultic from the historical has been almost as formidable in Lincoln's case as Albert Schweitzer found it to be when, a century ago, he conducted his "search for the historical Jesus."
The urge to mythologize and even deify the martyred Lincoln was visible from the moment of his death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth and continues unabated. A recent example, though